Bryce Harper threw his bat to the dirt and hurled expletives at the mound. His team languished behind the Atlanta Braves. His upper thigh throbbed from the fastball Julio Teheran aimed at him. He was sick of it. He waved his arm and squared off. Come on, he seemed to say. I’m right here.
Neither the anger Harper summoned Tuesday nor the homer he blasted earlier could halt the Braves’ stampede over the Washington Nationals. Division races, like elections, can be called over before all the results have been tallied. When is an inexact science, but the Braves’ 2-1 victory at Nationals Park may compel the Nationals to start drafting the concession speech.
“We’ve got two options now,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “We can cash it in and think about next year. Or we can grind it out and see what happens. I’m pretty sure we’re going to keep pushing.”
The benches cleared and the bullpens emptied in the fifth inning, but the Nationals could not stand up to the Braves on the scoreboard. Atlanta’s 12th consecutive victory pushed its lead over the Nationals to 141 / 2 games. The Braves overcame Gio Gonzalez’s seven dominant innings with the help of a questionable call, and the Nationals continued their ritual abandoning of base runners.
Harper had the last chance, an epic confrontation of youth and power between him and Craig Kimbrel with two outs in the ninth inning. Kimbrel pumped a 3-2, 99-mph fastball past him for the final out. For the 52nd time in 113 games, the Nationals had scored two runs or fewer.
“Either they’re pitching that good, or we just . . . I don’t know,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I don’t have an answer.”
With one out in the third inning, Harper had annihilated a home run to center field, a laser that landed halfway up the grass berm beyond the fence. Harper stared at the ball and took four slow steps before he started jogging around the bases. The trip took him 23.66 seconds — the longest trot of his career, according to TaterTrotTracker.com. Later, Teheran would say he had not even noticed Harper’s staredown or his trot.
The next time Harper came to bat, with one out in the fifth inning, Anthony Rendon stood on first base, and Harper represented the go-ahead run, far from an ideal situation to avenge a slight. And yet Teheran rifled a first-pitch, 94-mph fastball off Harper’s upper leg, the place pitchers hit batters when they are trying to hit them on purpose. Later, Harper was asked whether the plunking surprised him.
“I hit that ball pretty far off him,” Harper said. “So no, not really.”
Teheran and Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez insisted they were innocent.
“I get upset because I don’t want to hit him,” Teheran said. “When he say that to me, that’s when I start walking.”
Harper had little doubt about Teheran’s intent. He tossed his bat aside, pointed at the mound and cursed at Teheran. Teheran stalked toward Harper as the latter began walking to first base. He never considered charging the mound.
“I wasn’t going to go out there,” Harper said. “I mean, 141 / 2 games down and I need to be in the lineup. He’s got to do what he’s got to do. And it’s part of the game, like I said. If I walk-off on somebody and he wants to drill me, I’ll let him drill me and I’ll stand on first base and say some choice words and get over it.”
Catcher Brian McCann shouted at Harper and followed him down the line, impeded only by the plate umpire Joe West’s turn as a human shield. Nationals and Braves barreled out of the dugout. Relievers streamed from both bullpens. The Braves gathered in the middle of the infield, and the Nationals aligned themselves around the first base line. The sides postured for a minute, pointing and yelling.
“You get one of your guys hit, get people fired up, maybe get a little motivation there,” LaRoche said. “I’ve seen it go both ways. I don’t think it hurts anything, and I don’t blame Bryce for being mad in that situation.”
The Nationals had an opportunity to inflict the kind of damage that matters. Ryan Zimmerman blasted a deep fly ball to center that died on the warning track, pushing Rendon to third. “He almost hit one out of the ballpark,” Johnson said. “That’s the way you answer that sort of thing. You file it for future reference.”
The inning fell to Jayson Werth. He flied to left field, both base runners walked off the field and the Braves maintained their 2-1 lead. West issued an emphatic warming to Gonzalez — if he hit a batter, he was gone.
The feud simmered in another arena. The Braves’ official Twitter account sent a message that read, “Clown move bro,” an allusion to Harper’s infamous catchphrase. The Nationals’ Twitter account replied, “Which part, giving up the home run, or drilling the 20-year-old on the first pitch his next time up?” By the bottom of the seventh, it had been retweeted 798 times.
In his first start since Major League Baseball officially cleared him in the Biogenesis case, Gonzalez allowed two runs in seven innings, striking out five and walking one. With one out in the fifth, B.J. Upton ripped a single to left. Leading only 1-0, Gonzalez wanted to keep him out of scoring position.
As he faced Andrelton Simmons, Gonzalez threw to first base three times. Even after the pickoff attempts, Upton bolted. Catcher Wilson Ramos unleashed a laser to second base. Umpire Adam Hamari called safe, but on replay the tag appeared to come in time.
“Rendon told me he was out,” Ramos said.
Gonzalez walked Simmons, and with one out Teheran could afford to lay down a sac bunt. Up came Evan Gattis, hitting in the leadoff spot because he had replaced Jason Heyward after Heyward exited in the first with a neck strain. Gattis poked an opposite-field single to right, and both runners scored.
The Nationals had a chance to come back. Harper walked to the plate in the seventh 2 for 31 with 14 strikeouts against left-handed relievers. The Braves had their best lefty reliever, Luis Avilan, on the mound to face him. But Harper bounced a two-out single up the middle, then took about a 35-foot turn before retreating to first.
Zimmerman grounded down the third base line. Chris Johnson made the backhand stop, but his high throw lifted Freddie Freeman off the bag and kept the inning alive. Werth drew a five-pitch walk, leaving the bases loaded for LaRoche.
LaRoche took two balls. The Nationals Park crowd stood and roared louder than it has in months. LaRoche had faced Avilan enough to know he relies on his straight, four-seam fastball when he needs a strike. Avilan, though, fired a two-seamer, a pitch that cut back toward LaRoche’s hands.
“When it came out of his hand it looked great,” LaRoche said. “I don’t know how much run at the end it had on it, if it came off or not. I’ve hit that pitch plenty. He just beat me to the spot.”
LaRoche’s swing produced a dribbler to first. Freeman scooped the ball and stepped on first as Avilan slapped his glove. At the end of the night, the Nationals would have two choices.
“I’m going to go out there and play every single game like it’s my last,” Harper said. “I play this game hard every day, and that’s what I’m gonna do. And hopefully everybody jumps on that train.”